Away We Go

The Heineken Cup quarter finals are imminent. It’s always hard to see past the home sides in these games, and traditionally home advantage holds a big sway, but there’s usually one team able to overturn expectations and pull off a win on the road. Last year it was Munster, who were unfancied going to Harlequins but raised their intensity to levels Quins couldn’t deal with. The year before that it was Ulster, who went and sacked the Thomond Park fortress in a remarkable game. Which of the four look the most likely this time?

  1. Toulouse, at Munster. It’s increasingly hard to see Toulouse pulling off a result in this match. Their away form has been dismal all season and there are doubts over Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga and Dusatoir is still injured. With the likes of Medard, Fickou, Huget and Poitrenaud in their backline they should be one of the most exciting teams around, but it never really comes to fruition. If you’re wondering why, the clue might be in their half-backs. Jean-Marc Doussain is a scrum half in the Tomas O’Leary mould – picked for his physicality, he lacks mobility and intuition. Simply put, he’s a poor player for a club of this stature. Luke McAllister is a great footballer, but not a great 10 or a great place-kicker. Ulster showed that you can still win in Thomond Park even if your 10 plays rubbish, but only if your nine makes up for him. Can’t see that happening here, with the caveat that Toulouse’ bruising pack ground down Globo Gym once they were let into the game. If Munster whack and bag them early, tears will flow.
  2. Leicester Tigers, at Clermont. Nobody wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin, and Leicester, for all their undoubted awkward toughness and never-say-die attitude, do not look quite good enough to break what has been an incredible winning streak at home. Clermont are just too good, and their annual choke doesn’t usually get started until later. Leicester came up short in both games against Ulster, despite throwing everything at them and a similar outcome here feels inevitable. Having Tuilagi back in the fold is great news for them, and don’t expect Leicester to give Clermont anything cheap, but even if it’s tight, Clermont will pull through in the end.
  3. Saracens, at Ulster. The new Ravenhill is ready. Are Ulster? They look to have gone the old Munster route, throwing in a careless Pro12 defeat the week before the game, which gives Anscombe plenty of scope to kick them up the rear and get minds focused on the game ahead. Assuming Pienaar is fit, they’ve a pretty full deck to choose from. Even Ferris could feature, presumably as part of a double-whammy with Iain Henderson with 20 minutes to go. But what of Saracens? Never the most likeable of clubs, with the odious chairman Nigel Wray spearheading the European rugby governance coup, they have at least tried to broaden their game this season. They always looked to have the players capable of playing a bit more footie than they did, especially the superbly balanced Alex Goode, and it’s working well for them; they’re top of the Premiership and top try-scorers too, averaging almost three a match. This will be a hard game for Ulster and Saracens have a reasonable chance of pulling out an away win; in truth if the away win comes from anywhere it is most likely to be here. Ulster have shown enough toughness in this competition to deserve the tip, but Saracens are confident and in good form.
  4. Leinster, at Toulon. If timing is everything, Leinster have got this one wrong. Before the Six Nations, Bernard Jackman, the resident expert on all things French rugby, saw no reason why Leinster couldn’t win, citing Toulon’s shoddy morale, poor coaching, infighting and mediocre results as evidence. Roll on a few weeks and Toulon have put together five wins out of six in the Top 14 and the juggernaut appears to be pointing in the right direction. Heck, they’ve even won an away game! In the Top 14! Sacre bleu! As for Leinster, they’re just not playing well enough to be confident of getting what would be a remarkable win. Their greatest wins have been based on the twin pillars of accurate passing and near-feral clear-out; neither have been in much supply this season. Doubts remain over who will play at fly-half and whether the selected player can deliver. We’d have guessed Jimmy Gopperth was favourite, but it looks like O’Connor may feel his best chance is to approach this game as he would a home tie and play at as high a tempo as possible against what is a huge, but not overly mobile Toulon pack. So we’re expecting Jennings, Reddan and Madigan all to be in the starting team. Leinster still look to be dining out on their performance in Northampton this year and something of the same order is required here. Being Leinster, they can’t be ruled out but it’s a tall order. A home win looks the more likely.

Forgive the blandness of the opinion, but four home wins looks the most probable outcome, which would give us a semi-final line-up of Ulster-Clermont and Toulon-Munster. Both have met in recent years, with Ulster likely to look back with fonder memories. Clermont’s flakiness under pressure and poor record in Ireland would lead you to hesitate picking Clermont, but still, a repeat of last years final is a distinct possibility, and any winner other than Toulon would be a mild surprise.  The winner of Toulon-Leinster becomes tournament favourite.

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23 Comments

  1. Barry

     /  April 3, 2014

    Very pessimistic for an Ulster fan

    Ulster v Saracens – South Africa Exiles A v South Africa Exiles B

    • Bushmills

       /  April 3, 2014

      I thought those sort of comments were behind us? What’s the difference between Pienaar, Muller and Afoa vs Elsom, Hines and Nacewa or Howlett, Mafi and Tipoki? Nobody in Ulster begrudged Leinster’s or Munster’s success with the help of great overseas players. Why cheapen the wonderful renaissance at Ulster helped in no small part with the arrival of 2 Springboks and an All Black?

    • Bushmills

       /  April 3, 2014

      Barry

      I thought those sort of comments were behind us? What’s the difference between Pienaar, Muller and Afoa vs Elsom, Hines and Nacewa or Howlett, Mafi and Tipoki? Nobody in Ulster begrudged Leinster’s or Munster’s success with the help of great overseas players. Why cheapen the wonderful renaissance at Ulster helped in no small part with the arrival of 2 Springboks and an All Black?

    • jacothelad

       /  April 3, 2014

      Still playing around with the caber Barry. I’m sure B.J. Botha, van der Heever and C.J. stander would be happy to watch you.

    • Jaybee965

       /  April 5, 2014

      Aren’t the South African Exiles A playing the Six Nations champions this weekend?

  2. Donnie Brasco

     /  April 3, 2014

    Do Munster not have the home tie if they beat Toulouse?

  3. Keith

     /  April 3, 2014

    As a Leinster fan I’m hoping for a repeat of 2006 where we played brilliant rugby to demolish the best team in the competition on their home patch. Of course, that’s as far as I want the 2006 comparison to go. Losing again to Munster in Landsdowne Road in the semi’s would be unbearable

  4. Ireland's Answer

     /  April 3, 2014

    I’m not too confident predicting any of the Q/F. I think Munster are the safest bet. They should beat beat a Toulouse, who have only won four away games all season. V Connacht, Zebre, Biarritz and Sarries in Wembley. Which means they haven’t beaten anyone positioned higher than 8th in their actual home ground all season.

    My worry is Munster are kind of having a similar season to Ulster last year. Started off playing well and winning lots of games without totally convincing. The wheels slowed down during the six nations, they both lost to Leinster a week out before the Q/F, a lot of players are undercooked but can Munster unlike Ulster when their Q/F ?

    It is hard to right off Leinster but I will. I think MoC is a poor appointment. Leinster have regressed in almost every aspect of their game a tiny bit. I also think the ten situation isn’t helping either. Neither knows if he is first choice nor do the players which doesn’t help given they are different types of players. Toulon are excellent and if Leinster give away penalties like they did v Munster they haven’t a hope.

    Onto the Ulster men. Their biggest weakness is creativity in midfield. This was so obvious in last year’s q/f until Olding came on. (another eerily similar problem with Munster this year should JJ start?) He got Ulster’s fantastic back three moving, arguably the best back 3 in the competition. They miss Paddy Wallace a lot too. If the Saracens pack stands up to Ulster again they’ll rely on Pienaar to get them through in my opinion, which he is capable off. Sarries are an improved version of themselves from last year. WIth BIlly V and Johnson improvements on last year.

    • Bozo

       /  April 3, 2014

      On your point regarding Ulsters creativity – Luke Marshall doesn’t seem to be unlocking many defences. It would be interesting to see him and Paddy swap during some back moves – stir it up

      • Ireland's Answer

         /  April 3, 2014

        It is something he has to improve on. Pj and Cave need to help him as well.

    • It’s harsh to say MOC is a poor appointment at this stage. Leinster are 5 clear at the top of the Rabo, came through an incredibly tough pool and are on a huge winning streak.

      Look at where we were this time last year.

      He’ll rightly be judged by silverware come the end of the season.

      Would you not have expected Leinster to regress by the way? Losing Sexton, Isa, Schmidt, VDM, BOD and Cullen (in particular) a year older and less effective and player regulations meaning the majority of the squad are away for lengthy periods.

      Leinster only conceded 7 pens against Munster by the way. Not bad.

      • 7 penalties conceded is not a bad stat at all, but they conceded too many of them in kickable range, and a different referee might have looked very poorly indeed on the penalties conceded so close to their own try line.

        It was a very Leicester-esque disciplinary performance in that regard; Leinster were happy to give away kickable penalties at times rather than allow Munster the kinds of quick ball in phase play which could have led to a try. This might actually be the order of the day at the weekend against Toulon as well, because while they can be relentless with Wilko at 10, they’re not necessarily incisive, and you might be better off to concede penalties than to let them build up a head of steam.

        • Well they conceded 6 within kickable range, with two from scrums as far as I remember, and Munster didn’t score a try, so I wouldn’t say that either to be honest.

          Certainly I’d be happy with that against Toulon this weekend.

      • Ireland's Answer

         /  April 4, 2014

        You make good points O/v but I stand by what I say. There shouldn’t be any reason their back line has become so stagnant. On paper their pack still should be dominant.

        7 penalties is good but too many in kick able positions.

  5. Bozo

     /  April 3, 2014

    I would love an Ulster Munster final. It would be a close contest.

  6. Ireland's Answer

     /  April 3, 2014

    Oh yeah I think Leicester will beat Clermont. They should have beaten TOulon and look a better side this year while Clermont have regressed. Toulon v Munster and Ulster v Leicester are my predictions.

    • B

       /  April 4, 2014

      Even though I don’t watch enough premiership rugby to form a valid opinion something inside me says leicester can pull it off. Ulster were bullied by saracens last time out imo, with Ulster’s maul defense liability how likely are they to repeat the same mistake – quite likely imo. Despite toulouse’s loss of picamoles the Munster and Leinster games are the most open imo.

  7. Bowe Gathers

     /  April 4, 2014

    Ferris, Henderson, Gilroy and Rocky Lutton. On the bench. It’s a good weekend to be an Ulster fan with this kind of strength & depth…

  8. labrecha1

     /  April 4, 2014

    I thoght Leinster’s feral clearout work against Munster was impressive, different team this time though, Toulon got any destructive Jackals?

    • Yossarian

       /  April 4, 2014

      Armitage, was excellent when London Irish beat Leinster in RDS and the draw away the same year.

  9. Fergal

     /  April 6, 2014

    Uncultured Inferior Munster Boggers 47, Best Team In Europe 23.
    Who’d have thought it, eh, LeinsterLion?

    Toulouse’s try showed what they are capable of and that, talent-wise, they might be the Best Team in Europe. The match, bar 10 minutes around that try, and the result, show that Talent without Attitude is nothing, and that there is a lot more required to make a champion side than mere ability and talent. Something you seem signally unaware of, with your Madigan Must Be Better Than Jackson Because He’s More Talented schtick. Their abysmal away record – one away league win all season – clearly indicated that their attitude and winning mentality was nowhere near it needs to be to win anything.
    Whereas, Munster may be deficient in the talent/ability stakes, but they have the winning attitude and mentality in spades. That’s why the smart money was on them yesterday. Leinster have been really successful in recent seasons because they have both.

  10. Fergal

     /  April 6, 2014

    PS Commiserations to Ulster – the red card cost them the game. I can see how it’s devastating for them to happen in such a big knockout game, but the referee can’t adjudicate based on that or based on ruining the game, and the consequences for Goode could have been really serious. My better half is a medic who knows little about rugby, but a lot about spinal injuries, and she thought it was a really dangerous incident, and thus justified a red card.

    • i agree Its not up to the ref to worry about “ruining a game” he has to ref what he see’s but in this instance I felt he reffed the outcome rather than the incident. if Payne jumps its not even a penalty, a yellow would have been fair. A red seems harsh.

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